The magic of failed prophecy

Via Mano Singham’s blog comes this link to a truly fascinating and poignant story: one year after Harold Camping’s failed prophecy, what happened to the believers? It’s must-read material.

Just to highlight a couple paragraphs from the article:

What happened after May 21 matches up fairly closely with what scholars of apocalyptic groups would expect. The so-called disconfirmation was not enough to undermine the faith of many believers. From what I can tell, those who had less invested in the prophecy were more likely to simply give up and return to normal life. Meanwhile, those who had risked almost everything seemed determined to reframe the prophecy, to search the scriptures, to hang on to the hope that the end might be nigh.

I was struck by how some believers edited the past in order to avoid acknowledging that they had been mistaken. The engineer in his mid-twenties, the one who told me this was a prophecy rather than a prediction, maintained that he had never claimed to be certain about May 21. When I read him the transcript of our previous interview, he seemed genuinely surprised that those words had come out of his mouth. It was as if we were discussing a dream he couldn’t quite remember.

I read this and can’t help but think back to another failed prophecy, about Jesus establishing the kingdom of God in the lifetime of his followers. That prophecy failed, too, in a big way, when Jesus was publicly executed. Then, as now, those who had invested less in the prophecy fell away, but those who had given their lives to it were determined to reframe the prophecy and edit their own past to “remember” a new narrative about atonement and resurrection—a spiritual resurrection at first (I Cor. 15), but one that became a literal, physical resurrection by the time the Gospels were written. (And even then, the “materialized” version still retained the original “ghost story” elements of appearances and vanishings and walking through closed doors.)

Failed prophecy is a kind of magic, a magic that happens in the mind, transforming memories and preceptions and entire worldviews. Sometimes it gives rise to entire new religions. We can watch it as it happens, and see its effects on ordinary people—people who are neither crazy nor stupid who nevertheless end up with a perception of things that is shockingly out of touch with reality. And then, over time, this delusional worldview acquires the respectability of tradition, and spreads to just nice folks, who are also neither crazy nor stupid, but who are nevertheless anxious to prove their faith by defending the delusions of their founders.

There’s really nothing miraculous about what happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago. But it’s sad to see people still being misled by it today, to the detriment of those around them.


  1. This Is A Turing Test says

    Failed prophecy is one thing; when the failure is too obvious to miss, as with Camping, rational folks can dismiss both the prophet and his basis for prophecy (though, of course, you will always have the irrational, like Camping himself, with his “well, it was a spiritual rapture only” nonsense, who can still insist on the correctness of both). The world demonstrably did not end, duh. But…what about the “prophecies” that can be more rationally seen as successful, because the person interpreting it has a vested, ideological interest in seeing an outcome as such? This is not really “prophecy” in the usual sense, of course- more the looser sense of “something which may happen,” which, when it happens, fortifies an already-existing belief that the outcome itself is, in itself, a bad thing. I remember, in the late 20th, Falwell and others saying things like “a sign of the end times is when the homosexuals are accepted by society and allowed to marry”- and now, of course, since this is happening, some folks will take this “prophecy” and run with it in a big, self-serving circle, saying, “Falwell told us it was gonna happen”; thus reinforcing his (and their) basis (Christian faith run amok) both for believing that he was a prophet, and that homosexuality is a bad thing (not to mention the “end times” thing). This is similar to people in the 60’s saying (of black folks), “you don’t want your daughter marrying one, do you?” or “god help the country if one ever gets in the White House!” It’s hard enough to have to put up with irrationality that is provably so; but when the irrationality pretends that a “prophecy” and its “fulfillment” are rational, real, and separate things, instead of just fears of the future and the inevitable coming of it despite the fear- you have a “thought” process that’s a little harder to fight.

    • Ned Champlain says

      I can see your point, however, these prophesies, proclamations or what ever nomenclature you wish to use has one thing in common. The end of the world is near. Extrapolate this is to mean that there will be a rapture followed by seven years of tribulation and then the return of Jesus.
      My original post was “and I still don’t have my boat from the 1994 prediction.” The story is this: a ‘”true believer” goaded me with this prediction and I asked if I was going too, he said no. I asked if he and his family were being “raptured” he said yes. I then said cool let me have your boat. He said no, which told me he didn’t believe either and none of them do.
      They need a fund raising gimmick and that is all it is.

  2. Lynn Ellis says

    Another interesting post, although your transition from discussing Camping’s failed prophecies to your perspective on the beliefs of early Christians seems a little off the mark to me.

    In the case of Camping and his followers, the (not surprising) re-interpretation of his blatant errors is to spiritualize them. It’s easy to see that the end of the world did not coincide with Camping’s specific dates, but once he and his followers decided the meaning was only meant in a “spiritual” sense, you ended up with a discussion stopper. If the rapture and consequent end of the world prophecy only had some spiritual application, Camping and his followers can continually re-invent the meaning to whatever events a particular day might bring.

    Now to move on… comparing Camping’s cult to beliefs expressed within early Christianity, you’re saying that a belief in a spiritual resurrection (whatever that means) preceeded a belief in a physical resurrection. You offer I Corinthians 15 in support of the first part of that statement, and the gospels for the last part. When I read the passage in I Corinthians, I see support for belief in a physical resurrection of Christ and a direct inference that believers will share in that destiny. Some Christian apologists have gone further in maintaining that the passage represents an early statement of creed.

    My point is, regardless of what really happened to Christ, the early Christians always professed belief in his physical resurrection. However, even if we accept your contention that a belief in a “spiritual” resurrection preceeded belief in a physical one, we are still left with the axiom that Christianity really stands or falls on the alleged event of the physical resurrection of Christ. Everything else is secondary. Assuming it could actually be proven one way or the other, it avails itself to be analyzed through the presentation of available evidence and logic. Even if a conclusion one way or the other is impossible (depending on the evidence presented and a personal bias), it is still fundamentally different from trying to analyze a possible “spiritual” fulfillment of prophecy from Harold Camping.

    Switching gears for a moment here, why devote all the attention to the failed prophecies of eccentric religious personalities such as Camping? What about some of the secular alarmists whose prophecies have failed just as spectacularly?

    Paul Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” published in 1968, garnered substantial amounts of media credibility as did Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” published in 1962. Both individuals provided detailed information in their respective books as to what would transpire on the earth because of our environmental “sins” and both have been proven to be largely irrelevant if not outright erroneous (although like Harold Camping, Ehrlich still argues that his “prophecies” have been largely correct, even if he has to “spiritualize” them to make them relevant).

    Although it could be argued that Carson didn’t advocate the outright banning of all pesticides in her iconic tome, the largely worldwide prohibition against the use of DDT and subsequent rise in the incidence of malaria has directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries. Of course, Paul Ehrlich would not have objected as he always maintained that there are too many people on the earth anyway. Still, it does mystify me why people like Camping are villified while academics like Ehrlich and Carson remain relatively unscathed.

    • Lou Jost says

      Lynn, Rachel Carson’s predictions were conditional on nothing being done to prevent them. At the time she wrote, the public paid little attention to the cumulative effects of pesticides in the environment. She argued correctly that these effects would have major ecological consequences. Witness the rapid declines of raptors like the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle due to eggshell thinning caused by accumulations of DDT in adult birds. There can be little doubt that these and many other birds would have been pushed to near extinction or worse if nothing were done to reverse it. Carson’s book changed public opinion, DDT was banned, and the birds have been recovering rapidly since then. I can’t see how this is a failed prophecy. On the contrary, events showed that Carson was exactly right about the principle cause of these birds’ declines, and taking her advice solved the problem.

    • dorfl says

      Although it could be argued that Carson didn’t advocate the outright banning of all pesticides in her iconic tome, the largely worldwide prohibition against the use of DDT and subsequent rise in the incidence of malaria has directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries.

      That’s debatable. I haven’t got it here right now, but Merchants of Doubt argued that by the time DDT was banned, mosquitoes were mostly resistant anyway so Carson’s book simply didn’t make any difference for combating malaria.

      For example, Thailand* kept using DDT long after the US had banned it – it ended up taking them a decade to accept that it simply wasn’t affecting malaria rates anymore.

      *I think it was Thailand. Like I said, I haven’t the book here so I can’t doublecheck.

  3. StevoR says

    Good article thanks but I’ve got one minor historical nit to pick :

    There’s really nothing miraculous about what happened in Palestine 2,000 years ago.

    Emphasis added.

    Minor detail but at the time Rabbi Jesus was crucified the land it all happened in was the Jewish client kingdom of Judea. Jesus and all his family, disciples and so on were Judeans – Jews.

    That land today is known as Israel.

    As you may or may not know,there has actually never in all of history been an independent nation of Palestine – there was very breifly a colonial then UN administered mandate of that name but that’s all. The Arabs who for a time occupied parts of the region – the Arab and Ottoman Empire came many centuries later with Islam not bejng invented and exploding out of its desert birthplace until about the tenth or eleventh centuries AD.

    Not meaning to derail the thread – a whole other kettle of fish and all – but do I think that misleading historical lexical error needs correcting to Israel or Judea, please.

    • steffp says

      Jewish client kingdom of Judea
      The “Judea” the Romans conquered in 63 BCE was the result of an broad alliance of the Judean, Samaritan, Idumaean, Ituraean and Galilean nations dominated by the Judeans. It was not a Jewish state.
      By the way, the Romans called their province “Syria Palaestina”, their heirs, the Byzantines, “Palaestina Prima, Seconda, and Salutaris”. So do Herodot (500 BCE), and Josephus (1st century CE). The Arab Caliphate (filistine) continued to use the Byzantine name.
      That land today is known as Israel.
      No. Judea included the Palestine territories as well.
      there has actually never in all of history been an independent nation of Palestine
      True, but we’re talking Geography here. There never was, e.g., a “Scandinavian nation”, but we insist to call the region such.
      “(Islam not) exploding out of its desert birthplace until about the tenth or eleventh centuries AD
      History not being your strongest side? Jerusalem was conquered by Caliph Umar I in 637, and from then on it was part of the “Jund Filastine” province of the Arab Caliphate (Ummayad and Abbasid) and its diverse successors, with a brief crusader interlude.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    StevoR – Zionist propaganda much?

    The name “Palestine”, in various forms, goes back about 3,000 years.

    Originally applied just to the coastal area, it has denoted the general area of what we now call Israel (originally just a northern fraction of that territory) since before it was conquered by Alexander way back when.

    Political “independence” doesn’t mean much in terms of plain geography. It’s been well over a century since Central America was a single political unit, but the name still applies.

  5. lnrdo says

    It’s quite interesting that people who hold differing opinions on a current political dispute get annoyed when a certain word is used; both “Judea” and “Palestine” are seen as propaganda words because we all want to frame the narrative of history in a way that supports our opinion.

    Might I suggest that instead of re-framing and cherry-picking like Camping et al., we freethinkers ground our opinions in what would deliver the best future for humans, irregardless if who we think was “right” in the past.

    • Lou Jost says

      Sorry, but as a freethinker, I want to make sure my beliefs are true, regardless of whether they have nice consequences or bad ones. In this case I don’t have the facts to form an opinion….

    • Pierce R. Butler says

      I kinda like the idea of bypassing the “Israel”/”Palestine” dispute and going even further back historically: let’s call it “Canaan”…

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